Manufacturing’s Next Frontier: Materials That Assemble Themselves

The fourth dimension of at-home manufacturing is near, according to an MIT team. All you’ll have to do is add water.

[This project is an entrant in our Innovation By Design Awards. Stay tuned for the announcement of winners on October 10.]


It’s inevitable that you can only get so far into a conversation about technology these days without hearing the words 3-D printing. Perhaps, depending on who you hang out with and their faith in a forthcoming 3-D printer for the price of a phone, they get a particular starry-eyed gaze that must have accompanied talk about jet packs in the ’60s.

A team at MIT has taken the whole at-home manufacturing dream into a dimension that makes three seem inadequate, static at best: 4-D. The newcomer is the element of time, advancing the printing process by programming materials with the ability to change shape, to become something different than they were coming off the printer in response to their environment–to interactions like water, air, temperature–adapting over time.

Skylar Tibbits, director of the MIT Self-Assembly lab, helms the project. He and his team have partnered with Stratasys (the 3-D industrial printing company that recently acquired MakerBot for $403 million) to turn the concept of smart materials into a reality.

The first proof of concept came from a just-add-H20 molecules experiment: a strand of unformed printed pieces that morphed into the MIT logo once submerged in water. Everything was programmed ahead of time, so that it only took a change in elements (the water) to create a new shape, and therefore a new product.

The potential effect of such shape-shifting powers is limitless on everything from consumer goods to biomedical practices, the aerospace industry to sports. “You can imagine garments or shoes that respond to the athlete and the environment,” Tibbits tells Co.Design. “Tires could respond to road conditions, rather than consumers needing different tires for different surfaces.”

For him, the ultimate goal is on a macro scale–applying 4-D printing to reduce energy and labor costs in manufacturing.


The 4-D process requires two kinds of materials: static and active. The static material acts as the geometric structure, and the active material contains the energy and information that prompts the object’s transformation. Tibbits designs the size and placement of the active material using Autodesk’s Project Cyborg software. A Connex Multi-Material printer from Stratasys will then deposit the two materials simultaneously.

Of course, MIT scored a major coup in making objects that bounce into new forms once underwater. And along with the team’s largest future plans for the technology–to change the shape of global manufacture–you can also see how less ambitious iterations would refine or even lead into extinction the user experience of say, assembling furniture from Ikea.

Says Tibbits, “The applications are really infinite.”


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.